Wild storm whips through Unionville

Photographer Ambur Queen of Unionville captured this image of the storm roaring through Orange County on the evening of May 30. 

Robin Davies was headed home from Culpeper on Route 615 last Thursday evening when a violent thunderstorm began. Around 7 p.m., she received a weather alert on her phone: “Take cover.” 

But the Orange resident didn’t see any obvious place to stop along the narrow country road that crosses over the Rapidan River and into Orange County. With a full load of groceries in her car and a hungry teenage son waiting for her at home, she decided to keep going.

After she crossed into Orange County, she came upon a large log blocking the road. She and the people in the vehicles immediately ahead and behind her joined forces and moved the obstacle out of the way and continued heading toward Orange.

“I was driving down the road just praying,” she recalled a few days later. Under the canopy of trees stretching over the road, she said it was hard to know exactly how bad the storm was.

Moments later, she had to stop again. The storm was over, but the road was covered with huge fallen trees and clumps of hail.

“It was like a scene from ‘The Walking Dead,’” Davies said, the horror of it still alive in her voice.

If she and her new acquaintances had not stopped to move that log, Davies is convinced they would have been caught in the midst of the destruction.

“It was pretty surreal. It was crazy. Thank God, no one was hurt,” she said.

The story doesn’t end there. Davies called 911 and was told there was no telling when help would arrive, since no injuries at her scene had been reported.

Davies didn’t see any sign of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), either. (Which is not to say VDOT wasn’t hard at work. VDOT communications coordinator Will Merritt said about 10 roads were closed in Orange County that night due to storm-related hazards.)

What she did see were farm workers who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, chainsaws in hand. She watched in amazed gratitude as they began cutting up the fallen trees.

In the meantime, crew members from Dominion Energy, in the area for a major tower installation project, joined in and began creating a tunnel-like path along the road.

Davies decided to wait out this endeavor rather than go back toward Culpeper. Side routes she might have taken also were blocked, and she had no idea what she might run into if she retraced her trip.

During the two hours it took the band of gutsy volunteers to open the way through the fallen trees, Davies cheerfully mingled with other drivers and passengers waiting in line to get to town.

She said she encountered only one “Grumpy Gus” who didn’t fully understand the delay was a small price to pay for one’s safety.

“It was a very interesting experience,” she said. “Everybody kept their cool.”

Finally, around 9 p.m., Davies was back behind the wheel and heading home through “a 10-foot-wide tunnel” cut through the debris.

“Near Rounton Farm, the path of destruction was so distinct. There was this definite endpoint at Rounton Farm,” she recalled. “When I got into town, it was just like a normal thunderstorm had happened.”

Relieved, enormously grateful to the farmhands and Dominion crew members who cleared the path and glad she’d had snacks in the car she could share with other stranded travelers, Davies thanked the heavens.

A few days later, she headed back up Rapidan Road on a mission.

“I went back and got a two-foot piece of that log,” she said. Certain she would have been caught in the midst of crashing trees, had she not stopped to move the log, she wanted a talisman of her survival.

Ashe Laughlin of Rapidan also was out and about on that wild night. He said he was driving on Rapidan Road toward Orange when he saw, at a distance, a large and threatening cloud formation out his side window. He joined his wife and son in Orange, and the three took shelter in their car behind Orange County High School as hail rained down around them.

Meanwhile, that same night in Unionville, Ambur Queen was having an adventure of her own. She and her husband were looking out the window at the storm. Although her husband wanted her to stay put, the intrepid photographer couldn’t resist the pull of jaw-dropping drama.

Grabbing her camera, she dashed into the mayhem.

“I stopped at the hayfield to capture the storm. I looked to my right and saw what looked to be a tornado spinning in the trees, and the wind became very violent,” she said.

“I ran to my car and drove down Marquis. My husband saw [the apparent tornado] go by our house, and it was heavy hail, wind and rain. Once I got a safe distance from the storm, overlooking it from afar, there were sharp bolts of lightning and wind. You could see debris in the clouds.”

Queen was taking pictures all the while: “It scared me, but I can’t wait for the next one!”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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